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Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition

Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition

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Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition

5/5 (3 ratings)
312 pages
5 hours
Sep 16, 2011


The New York Times and Washington Post bestseller that changed the way millions communicate

“[Crucial Conversations] draws our attention to those defining moments that literally shape our lives, our relationships, and our world. . . . This book deserves to take its place as one of the key thought leadership contributions of our time.”
—from the Foreword by Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

“The quality of your life comes out of the quality of your dialogues and conversations. Here’s how to instantly uplift your crucial conversations.”
—Mark Victor Hansen, cocreator of the #1 New York Times bestselling series Chicken Soup for the Soul®

The first edition of Crucial Conversations exploded onto the scene and revolutionized the way millions of people communicate when stakes are high. This new edition gives you the tools to:

  • Prepare for high-stakes situations
  • Transform anger and hurt feelings into powerful dialogue
  • Make it safe to talk about almost anything
  • Be persuasive, not abrasive
Sep 16, 2011

About the author

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Inside the book

Top quotes

  • Our problem is not that our behavior degenerates. It’s that our motives do—a fact that we usually miss.So the first step to achieving the results we really want is to fix the problem of believing that others are the source of all that ails us.

  • The Pool of Shared Meaning is the birthplace of synergy.

  • Second, clarify what you really don’t want.

  • First, clarify what you really want.

  • We’re suggesting that people rarely become defensive simply because of what you’re saying. They only become defensive when they no longer feel safe. The problem is not the content of your message, but the condition of the conversation.

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Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition - Kerry Patterson



The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.


What’s a Crucial Conversation?

And Who Cares?

When people first hear the term crucial conversation, many conjure up images of presidents, emperors, and prime ministers seated around a massive table while they debate the future. Although it’s true that such discussions have a wide-sweeping impact, they’re not the kind we have in mind. The crucial conversations we’re referring to are interactions that happen to everyone. They’re the day-to-day conversations that affect your life.

Now, what makes one of your conversations crucial as opposed to plain vanilla? First, opinions vary. For example, you’re talking with your boss about a possible promotion. She thinks you’re not ready; you think you are. Second, stakes are high. You’re in a meeting with four coworkers and you’re trying to pick a new marketing strategy. You’ve got to do something different or your company isn’t going to hit its annual goals. Third, emotions run strong. You’re in the middle of a casual discussion with your spouse and he or she brings up an ugly incident that took place at yesterday’s neighborhood block party. Apparently not only did you flirt with someone at the party, but according to your spouse, You were practically making out. You don’t remember flirting. You simply remember being polite and friendly. Your spouse walks off in a huff.

And speaking of the block party, at one point you’re making small talk with your somewhat crotchety and always colorful neighbor about his shrinking kidneys when he says, Speaking of the new fence you’re building . . . From that moment on you end up in a heated debate over placing the new fence—three inches one way or the other. Three inches! He finishes by threatening you with a lawsuit, and you punctuate your points by mentioning that he’s not completely aware of the difference between his hind part and his elbow. Emotions run really strong.

What makes each of these conversations crucial—and not simply challenging, frustrating, frightening, or annoying—is that the results could have a huge impact on the quality of your life. In each case, some element of your daily routine could be forever altered for better or worse. Clearly a promotion could make a big difference. Your company’s success affects you and everyone you work with. Your relationship with your spouse influences every aspect of your life. Even something as trivial as a debate over a property line affects how you get along with your neighbor.

Despite the importance of crucial conversations, we often back away from them because we fear we’ll make matters worse. We’ve become masters at avoiding tough conversations. Coworkers send e-mail to each other when they should walk down the hall and talk turkey. Bosses leave voice mail in lieu of meeting with their direct reports. Family members change the subject when an issue gets too risky. We (the authors) have a friend who learned through a voice-mail message that his wife was divorcing him. We use all kinds of tactics to dodge touchy issues.

Jurassic Sales Call

Author Joseph Grenny takes you inside the VitalSmarts Video Vault and introduces you to Rick, who is training a new sales associate. Watch as the new associate, Michael, causes a scene in front of a client. How would you handle this crucial conversation?

To watch this video, visit www.CrucialConversations.com/exclusive.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you know how to handle crucial conversations, you can effectively hold tough conversations about virtually any topic.

Crucial Conversation r sa´ shen) n A discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.


Just because we’re in the middle of a crucial conversation (or maybe thinking about stepping up to one) doesn’t mean that we’re in trouble or that we won’t fare well. In truth, when we face crucial conversations, we can do one of three things:

• We can avoid them.

• We can face them and handle them poorly.

• We can face them and handle them well.

That seems simple enough. Walk away from crucial conversations and suffer the consequences. Handle them poorly and suffer the consequences. Or handle them well.

I don’t know, you think to yourself. Given the three choices, I’ll go with handling them well.

When It Matters Most, We Do Our Worst

But do we handle them well? When talking turns tough, do we pause, take a deep breath, announce to our innerselves, Uh-oh, this discussion is crucial. I’d better pay close attention and then trot out our best behavior? Or when we’re anticipating a potentially dangerous discussion, do we step up to it rather than scamper away? Sometimes. Sometimes we boldly step up to hot topics, monitor our behavior, and offer up our best work. We mind our Ps and Qs. Sometimes we’re just flat-out good.

And then we have the rest of our lives. These are the moments when, for whatever reason, we’re at our absolute worst—we yell; we withdraw; we say things we later regret. When conversations matter the most—that is, when conversations move from casual to crucial—we’re generally on our worst behavior.

Why is that?

We’re designed wrong. When conversations turn from routine to crucial, we’re often in trouble. That’s because emotions don’t exactly prepare us to converse effectively. Countless generations of genetic shaping drive humans to handle crucial conversations with flying fists and fleet feet, not intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness.

For instance, consider a typical crucial conversation. Someone says something you disagree with about a topic that matters a great deal to you and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The hairs you can handle. Unfortunately, your body does more. Two tiny organs seated neatly atop your kidneys pump adrenaline into your bloodstream. You don’t choose to do this. Your adrenal glands do it, and then you have to live with it.

And that’s not all. Your brain then diverts blood from activities it deems nonessential to high-priority tasks such as hitting and running. Unfortunately, as the large muscles of the arms and legs get more blood, the higher-level reasoning sections of your brain get less. As a result, you end up facing challenging conversations with the same intellectual equipment available to a rhesus monkey. Your body is preparing to deal with an attacking saber-toothed tiger, not your boss, neighbor, or loved ones.

We’re under pressure. Let’s add another factor. Crucial conversations are frequently spontaneous. More often than not, they come out of nowhere. And since you’re caught by surprise, you’re forced to conduct an extraordinarily complex human interaction in real time—no books, no coaches, and certainly no short breaks while a team of therapists runs to your aid and pumps you full of nifty ideas.

What do you have to work with? The issue at hand, the other person, and a brain that’s drunk on adrenaline and almost incapable of rational thought. It’s little wonder that we often say and do things that make perfect sense in the moment, but later on seem, well, stupid.

What was I thinking? you wonder—when what you should be asking is: What part of my brain was I thinking with?

The truth is, you were real-time multitasking with a brain that was working another job. You’re lucky you didn’t suffer a stroke.

We’re stumped. Now let’s throw in one more complication. You don’t know where to start. You’re making this up as you go along because you haven’t often seen real-life models of effective communication skills. Let’s say that you actually planned for a tough conversation—maybe you’ve even mentally rehearsed. You feel prepared, and you’re as cool as a cucumber. Will you succeed? Not necessarily. You can still screw up, because practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.

This means that first you have to know what to practice. Sometimes you don’t. After all, you may have never actually seen how a certain problem is best handled. You may have seen what not to do—as modeled by a host of friends, colleagues, and, yes, even your parents. In fact, you may have sworn time and again not to act the same way.

Left with no healthy models, you’re now more or less stumped. So what do you do? You do what most people do. You wing it. You piece together the words, create a certain mood, and otherwise make up what you think will work—all the while multiprocessing with a half-starved brain. It’s little wonder that when it matters the most, we’re often at our worst behavior.

We act in self-defeating ways. In our doped-up, dumbed-down state, the strategies we choose for dealing with our crucial conversations are perfectly designed to keep us from what we actually want. We’re our own worst enemies—and we don’t even realize it. Here’s how this works.

Let’s say that your significant other has been paying less and less attention to you. You realize he or she has a busy job, but you still would like more time together. You drop a few hints about the issue, but your loved one doesn’t handle it well. You decide not to put on added pressure, so you clam up. Of course, since you’re not all that happy with the arrangement, your displeasure now comes out through an occasional sarcastic remark.

Another late night, huh? I’ve got Facebook friends I see more often.

Unfortunately (and here’s where the problem becomes self-defeating), the more you snip and snap, the less your loved one wants to be around you. So your significant other spends even less time with you, you become even more upset, and the spiral continues. Your behavior is now actually creating the very thing you didn’t want in the first place. You’re caught in an unhealthy, self-defeating loop.

Or consider what’s happening with your roommate Terry—who wears your and your other two roommates’ clothes (without asking)—and he’s proud of it. In fact, one day while walking out the door, he glibly announced that he was wearing something from each of your closets. You could see Taylor’s pants, Scott’s shirt, and, yes, even Chris’s new matching shoes-and-socks ensemble. What of yours could he possibly be wearing? Eww!

Your response, quite naturally, has been to bad-mouth Terry behind his back. That is, until one day when he overheard you belittling him to a friend, and you’re now so embarrassed that you avoid being around him. Now when you’re out of the apartment, he wears your clothes, eats your food, and uses your computer out of spite.

Let’s try another example. You share a cubicle with a four-star slob and you’re a bit of a neat freak. Your coworker has left you notes written in grease pencil on your file cabinet, in catsup on the back of a french-fry bag, and in permanent marker on your desk blotter. You, in contrast, leave him printed Post-it notes. Printed.

At first you sort of tolerated each other. Then you began to get on each other’s nerves. You started nagging him about cleaning up. He started nagging you about your nagging. Now you’re beginning to react to each other. Every time you nag, he becomes upset, and, well, let’s say that he doesn’t exactly clean up. Every time he calls you an anal-retentive nanny, you vow not to give in to his vile and filthy ways.

What has come from all this bickering? Now you’re neater than ever, and your cubicle partner’s half of the work area is about to be condemned by the health department. You’re caught in a self-defeating loop. The more the two of you push each other, the more you create the very behaviors you both despise.

Some Common Crucial Conversations

In each of these examples of unhealthy downward spirals, the stakes were moderate to high, opinions varied, and emotions ran strong. Actually, to be honest, in a couple of the examples the stakes were fairly low at first, but with time and growing emotions, the relationship eventually turned sour and quality of life suffered—making the risks high.

These examples, of course, are merely the tip of an enormous and ugly iceberg of problems stemming from crucial conversations that either have been avoided or have gone wrong. Other topics that could easily lead to disaster include

• Ending a relationship

• Talking to a coworker who behaves offensively or makes suggestive comments

• Asking a friend to repay a loan

• Giving the boss feedback about her behavior

• Approaching a boss who is breaking his own safety or quality policies

• Critiquing a colleague’s work

• Asking a roommate to move out

• Resolving custody or visitation issues with an ex-spouse

• Dealing with a rebellious teen

• Talking to a team member who isn’t keeping commitments

• Discussing problems with sexual intimacy

• Confronting a loved one about a substance abuse problem

• Talking to a colleague who is hoarding information or resources

• Giving an unfavorable performance review

• Asking in-laws to quit interfering

• Talking to a coworker about a personal hygiene problem


Let’s say that either you avoid tough issues, or when you do bring them up, you’re on your worst behavior. How high are the stakes? This is just talk, right? Do the consequences of a fouled-up conversation extend beyond the conversation itself? Should you worry?

Actually, the effects of conversations gone bad can be both devastating and far reaching. Our research has shown that strong relationships, careers, organizations, and communities all draw from the same source of power—the ability to talk openly about high-stakes, emotional, controversial topics.

So here’s the audacious claim:

The Law of Crucial Conversations

At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations—ones that we’re either not holding or not holding well. Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents, and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues. Period. Here are just a few examples of these fascinating findings.

Kick-Start Your Career

Could the ability to master crucial conversations help your career? Absolutely. Twenty-five years of research in seventeen different organizations has taught us that individuals who are the most influential—who can get things done and at the same time build on relationships—are those who master their crucial conversations.

For instance, high performers know how to stand up to the boss without committing career suicide. We’ve all seen people hurt their careers by ineffectively discussing tough issues. You may have done it yourself. Fed up with a lengthy and unhealthy pattern of behavior, you finally speak out—but a bit too abruptly. Oops. Or maybe an issue becomes so hot that as your peers twitch and fidget themselves into a quivering mass of potential stroke victims, you decide to say something. It’s not a pretty discussion—but somebody has to have the guts to keep the boss from doing something stupid. (Gulp.)

As it turns out, you don’t have to choose between being honest and being effective. You don’t have to choose between candor and your career. People who routinely hold crucial conversations and hold them well are able to express controversial and even risky opinions in a way that gets heard. Their bosses, peers, and direct reports listen without becoming defensive or angry.

What about your career? Are there crucial conversations that you’re not holding or not holding well? Is this undermining your influence? And more importantly, would your career take a step forward if you could improve how you’re dealing with these conversations?

Improve Your Organization

Is it possible that an organization’s performance could hang on something as soft and gushy as how individuals deal with crucial conversations?

Study after study suggests that the answer is yes.

We began our work twenty-five years ago looking for what we called crucial moments. We wondered, "Are there a handful of moments when someone’s actions disproportionately affect key performance indicators?" And if so, what are those moments and how should we act when they occur?

It was that search that led us to crucial conversations. We found that more often than not, the world changes when people have to deal with a very risky issue and either do it poorly or do it well. For example:

Silence kills. A doctor is getting ready to insert a central IV line into a patient but fails to put on the proper gloves, gown, and mask to ensure the procedure is done as safely as possible. After the nurse reminds the doctor of the proper protections, the doctor ignores her comment and begins the insertion. In a study of over 7,000 doctors and nurses, we’ve found caregivers face this crucial moment all the time. In fact, 84 percent of respondents said that they regularly see people taking shortcuts, exhibiting incompetence, or breaking rules.

And that’s not the problem!

The real problem is that those who observe deviations or infractions say nothing. Across the world we’ve found that the odds of a nurse speaking up in this crucial moment are less than one in twelve. The odds of doctors stepping up to similar crucial conversations aren’t much better.

And when they don’t speak up, when they don’t hold an effective crucial conversation, it impacts patient safety (some even die), nursing turnover, physician satisfaction, nursing productivity, and a host of other results.

Silence fails. When it comes to the corporate world, the most common complaint of executives and managers is that their people work in silos. They do great at tasks that are handled entirely within their team. Unfortunately, close to 80 percent of the projects that require cross-functional cooperation cost far more than expected, produce less than hoped for, and run significantly over budget. We wondered why.

So we studied over 2,200 projects and programs that had been rolled out at hundreds of organizations worldwide. The findings were stunning. You can predict with nearly 90 percent accuracy which projects will fail—months or years in advance. And now back to our premise. The predictor of success or failure was whether people could hold five specific crucial conversations. For example, could they speak up if they thought the scope and schedule were unrealistic? Or did they go silent when a cross-functional team member began sloughing off? Or even more tricky—what should they do when an executive failed to provide leadership for the effort?

In most organizations, employees fell silent when these crucial moments hit. Fortunately, in those organizations where people were able to candidly and effectively speak up about these concerns, the projects were less than half as likely to fail. Once again, the presenting problems showed up in key performance indicators such as spiraling costs, late delivery times, and low morale. Nevertheless, the underlying cause was the unwillingness or inability to speak up at crucial moments.

Other important studies we’ve conducted (read the complete studies at www.vitalsmarts.com/research) have shown that companies with employees who are skilled at crucial conversations:

• Respond five times faster to financial downturns—and make budget adjustments far more intelligently than less-skilled peers (Research Study: Financial Agility).

• Are two-thirds more likely to avoid injury and death due to unsafe conditions (Research Study: Silent Danger).

• Save over $1,500 and an eight-hour workday for every crucial conversation employees hold rather than avoid (Research Study: The Costs of Conflict Avoidance).

• Substantially increase trust and reduce transaction costs in virtual work teams. Those who can’t handle their crucial conversations suffer in thirteen different ways (backstabbing, gossip, undermining, passive aggression, etc.) as much as three times more often in virtual teams than in colocated teams (Research Study: Long-Distance Loathing).

• Influence change in colleagues who are bullying, conniving, dishonest, or incompetent. When nearly 1,000 respondents were asked, 93 percent of them said that, in their organization, people like this are almost untouchable—staying in their position four years or longer without being held accountable (Research Study: Corporate Untouchables).

Most leaders get it wrong. They think that organizational productivity and performance are simply about policies, processes, structures, or systems. So when their software product doesn’t ship on time, they benchmark others’ development processes. Or when productivity flags, they tweak their performance management system. When teams aren’t cooperating, they restructure.

Our research shows that these types of nonhuman changes fail more often than they succeed. That’s because the real problem never was in the process, system, or structure—it was in employee behavior. The key to real change lies not in implementing a new process, but in getting people to hold one another accountable to the process. And that requires Crucial Conversations skills.

In the worst companies, poor performers are first ignored and then transferred. In good companies, bosses eventually deal with problems. In the best companies, everyone holds everyone else accountable—regardless of level or position. The path to high productivity passes not through a static system, but through face-to-face conversations.

So what about you? Is your organization stuck in its progress toward some important goal? If so, are there conversations that you’re either avoiding or botching? And how about the people you work with? Are they stepping up to or walking away from crucial conversations? Could you take a big step forward by improving how you deal with these conversations?

Video Case Study: STP Nuclear Operating Co.

See how Crucial Conversations skills helped a nuclear power plant in Texas become a national industry leader.

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  • (5/5)
    Unlike crucial accountability, this book is focused on a mission to share knowledge for reader and give a tool to better themselves and people around them. You will learn how to get people into problem solving state and spark action and commitment to reach mutually agreed goals, without compromissing trap. It has various, very descriptive, plausible real life scenarios used to vividly decribe the point. Well structured and I would highly recommend it.